Thoughts on D.C. United’s deal with CSN

Many of you are hoppin’ mad about D.C. United’s deal with Comcast SportsNet, one that provides live coverage of just 16 matches and leaves as many as nine games absent from the TV schedule. Your anger is justified. In this day and age, everything is on TV. Heck, cameras are focused on Brandi Chastain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar diving into a pool. (What, Luis Suarez wasn’t available?)

CSN has essentially made a summer commitment: 14 consecutive matches between May 8 and Aug. 3, with an additional game in both mid-August and mid-September. The channel has the option of picking up more matches — at the moment, five of the last 10 have no TV assignments — but that decision will hinge on summer ratings, available time slots and financial considerations. United will undoubtedly press CSN to add games, but in the end, it’s the channel’s call.

Production costs start at $35,000 per game, and as part of the contract, CSN is covering all such expenses. (Production costs are lower for away games when talent is not on site.) Could United pay for additional games? It could — but probably won’t. Why? It sets a precedent for “buying” air time and paying its own way, when, in the long run, the club wants to position itself as a entity worthy of a channel’s interests — and its financial commitment. This approach, however, is no consolation to the average spectator, who simply wants to watch a potentially important late-season match and doesn’t care about business posturing.

If CSN doesn’t want to show those games, perhaps an over-the-air channel (Channel 20 or 50) would want them? Well, maybe. But they are not going to pay production costs when they can fill time slots with their network shows at no additional expense. And let’s be frank: United matches do not draw enough viewers for a station to alter its schedule and spend large sums when it already offers original programming.

What should be noted here is United appears to have forged a good financial deal with CSN. While almost all other MLS clubs offer more local programming than United, many are also paying entire production bills. CSN is picking up the tab in Washington. Which raises the question: What is United doing with those savings? After all, the club did not spend an enormous amount on player acquisitions this winter. I don’t have a definitive answer, but money saved on TV could provide the resources for a major signing during the summer transfer window. Or more likely, it’s a matter of thrift: Until United opens a new stadium, revenue streams are limited and the club is trying to slow the bleeding.

United is also saving money by not sending announcers Dave Johnson and John Harkes to away matches. Calling a game off monitors in the CSN studio in Bethesda is minor league, but again, financial considerations won out. (The announcers work for the team, not the network.)

United officials say they had three credible offers for a local TV partner. They wouldn’t name the other two, but my hunch is one was Verizon FiOS, which has limited availability. So why did they sign with CSN? Three key factors were in play: time slots, reach and money.

*Without baseball, CSN has abundant time to fill in the summer. Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the region’s other sports outlet, carries both the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles almost every day from April to October.

*CSN is available on myriad cable systems and is synonymous with Washington sports coverage — for both game coverage and studio production. Being on CSN means you are part of the regional sports landscape.

*CSN agreed to pay production costs.

United’s choice was clear; it was just a matter of working out the best possible deal.

The pact is for three years, which is good and bad. On the bright side, we won’t have to go through this anxious waiting period the next two springs and United has a long-term commitment that doesn’t saddle the club with production expenses. On the gloomy side, the terms are the same: 16 games per year, with CSN’s option to add more.

What United is trying to do is line itself up for future growth: Now that the club isn’t spending money on TV — in recent years, the club split production costs with CSN — United believes the next step (in at least three years) is to begin making money on TV. That, however, would require sustaining a quality on-field product (winning = public interest = ratings = rights’ fees) and reaching a stadium deal.

Without a new venue, United will continue to tread water in a highly competitive sports market (Redskins, Ravens, Wizards, Capitals, Nationals, Orioles, University of Maryland football and basketball, Georgetown basketball and more). Remaining at RFK, which has seen better days and is too large for MLS purposes, while continuing to lose a ton of money also feeds the general public’s perception that United may someday skip town for greener pastures. A new stadium would bring permanency and a destination for casual fans. For all of its wonderful history and spirit, RFK is not on most people’s weekend planner. While in a perfect world, everyone would turn out solely for the 90 minutes of competition, the stadium experience remains a significant selling point in American sports business.

Another issue on the TV front is the rapid changes in our viewing habits. While United’s game tonight at Kansas City and next weekend against New York are not on a standard channel in the Washington area, they are available on MLS’s pay packages: Direct Kick (cable and satellite) and MLS Live (online and mobile devices).

Increasingly, people are turning to non-TV alternatives for sports and entertainment video. Hardcore soccer supporters have been going this route for years. But if United — and soccer, in general — wants to grow, it needs to appeal to a broader audience. The way to do that is by arranging for more games on standard TV, not fewer.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff · April 4, 2013